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When Men Betray Men

Masculine friendship and betrayal in Westerns

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

‘No one would ever pay 25 cents to stand in the rooms he grew up in.’ – The narrator on Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

The Western has its themes as large as the geology of Monument Valley and yet as intimate as a face. Masculine friendship is one of those themes. The plus side is a sense of kinship and solidarity, a closeness, a masculine friendship that runs from Red River (Howard Hawks, 1948) and Shane (George Stevens, 1953) to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill, 1969) and through to the thoroughly unsurprising, though at the time daring Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005). And yet it was always there, that need, that desperate need for companionship and self-realisation that a mere woman could never provide. After all, if women represent anything, they represent the end of the West. Be it Natalie Wood in The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) as the confused end of the quest (whether she wants it or not) or Claudia Cardinale in Once upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968), who is not only the instigator for the death or departure of all the male characters but the end of Leone’s epic Spaghetti Western cycle. Women hadn’t featured at all, except in the tired dichotomy of Madonnas (Marisol) or sundry whores.

Friendship is all. It is an emotional connection that you can have while still remaining true to the West. It is as old as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, or for that matter Huckleberry Finn and Jim, who in the end would rather go to hell than betray a man he comes to realise is his friend. The chalk and cheese buddy relationship would be the template for the cop buddy movies, in the same way horse operas turned to gangster movies.

The importance of friendship, the centrality of male friendship casts a long shadow though. The vulnerability and emotional neediness that stand behind the ideal of male friendship run against the emotional inscrutability and toughness that represent the macho ideal. The shadow such neediness casts is that of betrayal. Betrayal is to male friendship what adultery is to marriage, it at once contravenes all the rules but at the same time is the necessary definition for the relationship itself. Being married (in the traditional sense) is basically defined by exclusive sexual access, and so being married is about not being adulterous, but then again you can only be adulterous by at first being married. So betrayal is not only a contravention of friendship, it is another expression of it. It is always disappointed love.

Robert Ryan’s Deke Thornton in The Wild Bunch (1969) pursues William Holden’s Pike with something like ardour. In the events leading up to the betrayal we see Thornton’s capture taking place in the bedroom of a brothel with a get-in-the-way woman conveniently muddying the waters. The proximity of sex to the key moment, the seed of betrayal, sharpens the sense that in hunting Pike, Thornton is revenging himself against Pike’s betrayal of him. The blood bath that concludes the film also represents a choice that the men make. They turn from the brothel and the boring repetition of heterosexual sex to go out in a blaze of male-bonding glory. Pike will receive his first bullet from a woman who stands watching him from a bedroom mirror. ‘Bitch,’ he hisses as he blows her away. The violence of their demise will be better than sex in that it is irreversible. Instead of the innumerable little deaths of the orgasm, this is the big death of the Gattling gun.

Sam Peckinpah’s misogyny can only really be understood as a sop to his disappointed man love. He is heterosexually gay. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) pits James Coburn as the law man against his former friend and accomplice, played by a beardless and ultimately bare-chested Kris Kristofferson. There is a careful strategic deployment of whores in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, but they are only there for the biological ho-hum jiggery-pokery of sex. Love is something that is felt exclusively between men (and therefore so is murderous hate), and women can only get in the way and ruin the fun. It’s significant that in Billy the Kid’s demise Peckinpah refrains from his usual slow-motion bloodletting, as if he couldn’t bring himself to spoil Billy’s beauty.

Masculine betrayal bleeds through into other genres, but generally speaking it tends to be familial. Fredo in The Godfather: Part Two (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) is not the first brother to do a sibling wrong – think On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1954): ‘It was you, Charlie’ – but it is a fantastic moment, as the fragile façade of an ethos falls to pieces before our eyes and we realise that this is just bloody mayhem, straight and simple. Not only is family not protected – the rationale behind Vito Corleone’s actions – it is corroded, torn apart. Even in science fiction, Lando Carlrissian’s betrayal of Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) is recognisably that of two cowboy chums with a long history.

The most recent and indeed the most thorough treatment of the topic comes in Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Robert Ford is a pallid adolescent forever catching the breath of his own surprising emotions. His love for Jesse James is somewhere between fandom and embarrassing teenage infatuation. He spies Jesse in the bath, collects facts about him and fetishistically touches things that Jesse has touched. Jesse is well aware of the boy’s feelings and indeed courts them, disappointed as he is by the quiet anonymity of his own family life and his estranged relationship with his elder brother (Sam Shephard). In fact, James himself is a lost boy, a fact that the casting of a visibly ageing Brad Pitt emphasises. His little boy lost status is seen in his proclivity for practical jokes, little dances, pouty moodiness and occasional tears. Even his violence is childish: he sits on a child and tries to twist his ear off. It is schoolyard bullying writ large but bullying nonetheless and it explains his need for Robert’s adoration, even perhaps his need for death, which he already feels perhaps is coming too late.

The assassination (the word was introduced into English by William Shakespeare to describe Caesar’s death, which included the second most famous betrayal) itself is not a betrayal. The assassination is longed for, wanted. As with Judas, Robert is not so much Jesse’s adversary as his accomplice. He is armed by Jesse, given motivation, cajoled and threatened into it. The scene of the assassination is almost comic in the way Jesse is the director and Robert and his brother (Sam Rockwell) the reluctant actors. Jesse lays down his guns, positions himself with his back to his would-be killers and even gets to become a spectator in his own death as he watches Robert Ford raise his gun in the reflection of the picture glass that he is ostensibly intent on cleaning. An alternative title for the film could be ‘The Suicide of Jesse James Exploiting the Witless Ambition of Robert Ford’.

The true betrayal comes in the aftermath: the exploitation of Jesse’s death for personal gain. Initially, Robert and his brother are traumatised by what they have done, tearful and panicked, but in the space of time that it takes to run down the hill to the telegraph office they have become cocky and assured of their future fame. The theatrical replaying of the murder betrays not only Robert’s friendship with Jesse but also the integrity of the moment. It goes from tragedy via repetition to farce. But then of course the telling of the tale becomes, as with the Ancient Mariner, a curse: ‘By his own approximation Robert assassinated Jesse James over 800 times. He suspected no one had ever so openly and publicly recapitulated an act of betrayal.’ The psycho-drama enhanced by Charlie’s casting as Jesse and his increasingly uncanny portrayal seems like a punishment and already the audience begins to see through Robert’s self-aggrandising version of events, calling out ‘coward’.

By killing Jesse, Robert has only managed to facilitate Jesse’s resurrection via photography and theatrical representation. Robert’s own fame is initially intense but fleeting. He will be forgotten and if remembered, his name will be forever subsidiary to and blackened by his association with Jesse James. It will also make him fair game for the passing psychosis of the man who will kill him. As such the betrayal serves Jesse: he is the beneficiary. Christian martyrdom is, in the final analysis, an immoral aggressive act, a cornering, or better still, given the Chinese box presence of the media in Dominik’s film, a framing.

John Bleasdale

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